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Book review: 'Of Dice and Men'

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"Of Dice and Men"

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The book ‘Of Dice and Men’ is an interesting approach to the topic of Dungeons & Dragons, alternating the author’s own D&D experiences with the history of the game from its wargaming origins to the latest incarnation, D&D 5.0 Written by David M. Ewalt, a games journalist at Forbes, the book aims to explain D&D to a mainstream audience that hasn’t played D&D, but the history portions make it interesting for experienced gamers as well.

In the personal part of the book, Ewalt explores his introduction to the game at age 10 by a friend, describing it as a revelation for the “impossibly nerdy” kid who attended a magnet school for gifted children. His delight in his discovery will be familiar to many gamers. “In this world, I wasn’t a ‘neo-maxie-zoom-dweebie’ in JC Penney slacks. I was an ass-kicking, dungeon crawling, goblin-slaying epic hero.”

Ewalt deliberately distanced himself from D&D in college, finding it embarassingly geeky, but picked it up again a decade later when he answered an ad in Craigslist for a new D&D campaign that was starting up. Overcome with self-consciousness, he rationalized that he could write about it for work. Soon, though, he was consumed once again.

Over the course of researching the book, he becomes amusingly obsessed, looking for pick-up games when away from home and wondering if he’s a character in someone else’s role-playing game and the people he sees on the street are rolled up by the Dungeon Master. He creates role-playing reference tables for Manhattan” “Deli, roll of 12: Homeless guy asking for change. Coffee shop, roll of 4: Unpublished novelist pretending to write on a laptop computer.” At the end of the book, Ewalt realizes he’s no longer content to play in someone else’s universe, but wants to create his own. He sketches out a world, sets up some story arcs and rudimentary rules, and drops his trusty gaming group in the thick of it.

Interspersed with Ewalt’s personal experience is a detailed history of D&D. Gary Gygax, the game’s co-creator, was originally a war-gamer, having discovered the game “Gettysburg” at age 10. Gygax was particularly hooked on military miniatures battles and built his own sand table. But Gygax also loved fantasy, having been regaled with tales of wizards and warriors by his father. He wrote a ruleset for medieval-miniatures called Chainmail, which crucially included a “Fantasy Supplement,” which gave rules for casting magic spells and fighting monsters.

Chainmail was discovered by D&D’s other creator, David Arneson, who had a propensity to drop fantasy elements into his own wargames like druid high priests and phaser guns, and was looking for just such a ruleset. Arneson had written up a setting called Blackmoor, a medieval city with dragons. After Arneson stumbled upon Chainmail, he showed Blackmoor to Gygax, and a fruitful partnership was forged.

After preliminary rules were banged out, Gygax’s own kids joined the play-testing along with friends. Gygax would sit at a filing cabinet next to it pull out the drawers so the players couldn’t see him. According to one player, “You heard his voice. All the action took place entirely inside our heads … if you wanted a map, you drew one yourself.” Players didn’t talk much, afraid to miss an announcement from behind the filing cabinet, and had a “caller” who spoke for the group. Gygax didn’t show the players the rules for the first year, not just because they hadn’t been written, but because Gygax wanted the players to use their common sense and learn the game through experience.

After many years of rulebooks, the D&D company TSR decided that the rules were acting as a drag on imagination. “Somewhere along the line, D&D lost some of its flavor, and began to become predictable … when all the players had all rules in front of them, it became next to impossible to beguile them into danger or mischief,” said the foreword to a new rule supplement. “These pages should go a long way toward putting back in some of the mystery, uncertainty, and danger that make D&D the unparalleled challenge it was meant to be. No more will some foolhardy adventurer run down into a dungeon, find something and immediately know how it works, or even what it does.”

So how did TSR propose to bring back the magic? Paradoxically, by adding more rules. The thinking was that nobody would be able to keep up with all of them. Well, that failed in two ways. First, it underestimated the ability of players to develop encyclopedic knowledge of the rules, as geeky types are wont to do, with some turning into “rules lawyers” who get hung up on totally picayune points. Second, you get to a point where the process to attempt to smash open a door consists of nine steps, which takes Ewalt a paragraph to describe.

Enter D&D 5th Edition. The new edition attempts to harmonize the rules of the previous editions in an unforced, modular way, with a goal of looking past the rules and identifying the core of D&D: exploration, combat, adventure, and story. So the rules are customizable - and simple. If you want to smash open a door, the Dungeon Master simply checks your character's strength.

According to Mike Mearls, the senior manager of research and development at Wizards of the Coast (to which TSR was sold) said, “Just like a player makes his character, the Dungeon Master can make his rule set. He might say, ‘I’m going to run a military campaign, it’s going to be a lot of fighting’ so he’d use the combat chapter, drop in miniatures rules, and include the martial arts optional rules. You can have as much or as little customization as you want.”

Ewalt description of D&D’s evolution to, in a way, come full circle to return to a focus on story over rules, is really engaging and interesting. Worth reading, for the uninitiated and experienced gamers alike.

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